Coffee Rust Never Sleeps

It is not that we avoid this topic. Over the years we have posted plenty of times on it. It is complex, with no clear solution in view so we have avoided the most depressing stories on the topic, of which there are plenty. The topic matters very much to our current livelihood, so we are constantly on the lookout for stories that illuminate with science, touch with humanity, and/or frighten with clarity. We share one today that does all three. We have featured the work of Maryn McKenna just once before, and now is as good a time as any to do so again. Guatemala is in our neighborhood and the story she tells could have as easily been here in Costa Rica. We thank the Atlantic for publishing it:

Coffee Rust Is Going to Ruin Your Morning

Coffee plants were supposed to be safe on this side of the Atlantic. But the fungus found them.

In the southern corner of Guatemala, outside the tiny mountain town of San Pedro Yepocapa, Elmer Gabriel’s coffee plants ought to be leafed-out and gleaming. It is a week before Christmas, the heart of the coffee-harvesting season, and if his bushes were healthy, they would look like holiday trees hung with ornaments, studded with bright-red coffee cherries. But in a long row that stretches down the side of his steeply sloped field, the plants are twiggy and withered. Most of their leaves are gone, and the ones that remain are drab olive and curling at the edges. There are yellow spots, brown in the center, on the leaves’ upper surfaces. On the underside they are pebbly, and coated with a fine orange dust. Continue reading

Gastropod Defense Team? Not so fast…

Visitors to this site know that coffee plays a significant role in the lives of many of our contributors, so the threat of rust is something we’ve been aware of for some time as well. We’re usually in favor of finding natural and non-invasive solutions to pest problems, but are quite aware that “non-invasive” must be the operative word.

The unintended consequences of using the invasive Asian tramp snail as a biological control could be significant, causing more harm than help. The studies here suggest that selective planting amid the coffee could provide various solutions, which consider the benefits of the polyculture planting methods of shade-grown coffee.

What Tiny Snail Poop Could Mean For Latin America’s Coffee Farms

Zachary Hajian-Forooshani never expected to find snails in the mountainous, coffee-producing heart of Puerto Rico. In 2016, when he was a University of Michigan masters student, he and his peers noticed some curious excrement on the undersides of coffee plants, which they eventually traced to the invasive Asian tramp snail. “Cool things pop out and you follow up with them,” says Hajian-Forooshani, who has made the snails and their colorful poop the subject of his doctoral research. “I just followed a trail of excrement.”

The oddly colored snail poop was, not coincidentally, the same bright-orange color as coffee rust, a parasitic fungus that’s coming for your morning buzz.

Central American farmers have tried breeding hybrid coffee species that are rust-resilient, but the fast-moving fungus is quick to develop an immunity to that resistance. ADAM KEOUGH/PUBLIC DOMAIN MARK 1.0

Coffee leaf rust has been a menace for more than a century. After appearing on Sri Lanka in the late 1800s, it enveloped the island within 20 years, ridding what was once the world’s greatest coffee exporter of its cash crop in near entirety. Traveling on the wind across Africa’s coffee belt, coffee rust reached the Atlantic coast by the 1950s. Its arrival in Brazil in 1970 sowed panic in a heavily coffee-reliant economy, and within 12 years, no coffee-producing region in Latin America, where seven-eighths of the world’s joe is produced, was rust-free. Today, 70 percent of Central American farms are infected, costing the region $3.2 billion in damage and lost income. Continue reading

From Gardens Long Gone, Now Revived

These dates sprouted from 2,000-year-old seeds retrieved from archaeological sites in the Judean wilderness. Dan Balilty for The New York Times

While we are on the topic of gardens, let’s continue on a roll:

Aided by Modern Ingenuity, a Taste of Ancient Judean Dates

The harvest of the much-extolled but long-lost Judean dates was something of a scientific miracle. The fruit sprouted from seeds 2,000 years old.

The proud father Methuselah, grown from ancient seeds, at Kibbutz Ketura in the Arava desert, Israel. Dan Balilty for The New York Times

KETURA, Israel — The plump, golden-brown dates hanging in a bunch just above the sandy soil were finally ready to pick.

They had been slowly ripening in the desert heat for months. But the young tree on which they grew had a much more ancient history — sprouting from a 2,000-year-old seed retrieved from an archaeological site in the Judean wilderness. Continue reading

Puzzling Palm Positivity

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I saw this photo while skimming the headlines in the Environmental News section of the Guardian’s website. I have been skimming that section most mornings since July, 2011. Out of 3,000+ times skimming and always finding at least one news story to click through to read, today was the first time I ever clicked on an image that I could see was part of a paid advertisement. I landed on a screen filled with this:

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I have replicated as best I can what I saw, including the links to the messages embedded behind each of the images. The images of palm plantations are so pretty. The messages are so positive.

I am puzzled.

Palm?

Positive?

Regenerating, Banana & Plantain

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Following yesterday’s theme, but switching to another example, today I will say a few words more about the pitch. The last time I spent time thinking about bananas as much as I am now, it was in the context of creating an edible landscape. Amie and other team members wrote plenty on this topic when we were based in Kerala.

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Now that I am prepping for regeneration I am watching these banana and plantain plantings grow day to day, week to week as I remove the grasses surrounding them. Continue reading

Regenerating, Early Steps

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In the early stages of regenerating this erstwhile coffee farm, moving decades-old ornamentals to the periphery has been an important activity. But some ornamentals stay put. The purple flowers center-left in the image above are a favorite of both hummingbirds and butterflies, so that bush, planted only one year ago, was a no-go. And behind it, a bougainvillea that was planted in 2001 remains because it has become a favorite place for hens to bring their chicks to hide under the foliage from a grey hawk that has taken up residence above in the poro trees.

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In this image above, in the background is a sibling of the bougainvillea planted in 2001, and this one was already closer to the periphery so did not need moving. But in the foreground is an example of another ornamental that has a completely different purpose. It is, frankly, an ugly ornamental as these things go. It does not produce flowers, instead putting its energy and other resources underground to create a strong, deep root system. It is planted for soil retention. And this stalk was cut from a mature version of the same, as seen below. Continue reading

Curvy Berms, Seedlings & Fertile Earth

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Curvy berm

What looks like an elongated haystack curving downslope in this photo we call a berm. No hay there, just a mix of cut grass covering branches, logs, and such. The purpose of a berm, diagonally traversing this hill, is explained better by others. When we prune trees and bushes, cut grass, and find old logs on the land their biomass help build this berm. Recently we trimmed all our vetiver grass, a soil retention ally that grows waist-high in rows throughout our hills. We cut it back twice a year, and added it to the  top of the curvy berm.

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Poro seedlings

To the left of that berm are re-plantings of a type of palm that we had growing on the property already, which birds love for the orange fruit it provides and for nesting. Those 20 palms join the 30 banana and plantain trees on the flat area below, and the dozen or so citrus trees recently planted. The shade-providing and nitrogen-fixing tree called poro will be planted during the next waning moon cycle.

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Poro trees, parents of the seedlings, with vetiver grass downslope

We have collected hundreds of seedlings from the poro trees originally planted when this land was part of a coffee farm.

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This rainbow reminded me to document the work on the land where the bees are, and where the coffee will be. For now, just a quick note. On the lower left of the photo above you can see where I have been using a pickax to loosen soil, dark and rich and teeming with earthworms, for planting in between the rows of bananas. I last cleared this space before we moved to Croatia in 2006. The grasses and vines that occupied this space for the intervening years until recent months, now our enemy for growing plants we favor, have performed an amazing ecosystem service. The earthworms and smell of the soil tell me that.

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End of day, sunset time, back on the terrace of our home, an unexpected spectacle. In the photo below, which is looking due east, the sun is coming from the west, hitting Irazu volcano and lighting it up in such a way that it almost looks like golden lava is flowing down its cone. I’ll take that view, with thanks to whatever caused it.

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Sunset-illuminated Irazu volcano in the distance

Scaling The Urban Farm, In Paris

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Nature Urbaine. Photograph: Magali Delporte/The Guardian

The future of food: inside the world’s largest urban farm – built on a rooftop

In Paris, urban farmers are trying a soil-free approach to agriculture that uses less space and fewer resources. Could it help cities face the threats to our food supplies?

Thanks to the Guardian for keeping stories like this  coming:

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Urban farming on a Parisian rooftop. Photograph: Stéphane de Sakutin/AFP/Getty Images

On top of a striking new exhibition hall in the southern 15th arrondissement of Paris, the world’s largest urban rooftop farm has started to bear fruit. Strawberries, to be precise: small, intensely flavoured and resplendently red.

They sprout abundantly from cream-coloured plastic columns. Pluck one out to peer inside and you see the columns are completely hollow, the roots of dozens of strawberry plants dangling into thin air.

From identical vertical columns nearby burst row upon row of lettuces; near those are aromatic basil, sage and peppermint. Opposite, in narrow, horizontal trays packed not with soil but coco coir (coconut fibre), grow heirloom and cherry tomatoes, shiny aubergines and brightly coloured chards. Continue reading

Rock Dust Carbon Cure

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 Crushed basalt is applied to an arable field in Norfolk as part of the research programme of the Leverhulme Centre for Climate Change Mitigation. Photograph: Dr Dimitar Epihov

At first glance, this seemed like a headline from a satirical news site, but it is serious:

Spreading rock dust on fields could remove vast amounts of CO2 from air

It may be best near-term way to remove CO2, say scientists, but cutting fossil fuel use remains critical

Spreading rock dust on farmland could suck billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide from the air every year, according to the first detailed global analysis of the technique.

The chemical reactions that degrade the rock particles lock the greenhouse gas into carbonates within months, and some scientists say this approach may be the best near-term way of removing CO2 from the atmosphere.

The researchers are clear that cutting the fossil fuel burning that releases CO2 is the most important action needed to tackle the climate emergency. Continue reading

Carbon Smart Farming

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Trey Hill on his farm in Rock Hall, Maryland. MICHELLE FRANKFURTER/FERN

Gabriel Popkin came to my attention twice when I was based in Belize, and had an obsession with Mayan foodways that led to a year of thinking about how to commercialize brosimum alicastrum in the USA. That seemed to have been in vain, except here we are on the trail again. Gabriel Popkin came to my attention a third time in 2017 and then I did not see any of his work again until today. It is good to see it again:

Can ‘Carbon Smart’ Farming Play a Key Role in the Climate Fight?

Markets are emerging to pay farmers to store more carbon in the soil by using improved agricultural practices. But flows of greenhouse gases into and out of soil are complex, and some scientists are questioning whether these efforts will actually help slow global warming.

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Trey Hill shows off the carbon-rich soil under his crops. GABRIEL POPKIN/FERN AND E360

Trey Hill led a small group of fellow farmers to a field outside his office in Rock Hall on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. It was a cloudy February day, but the ground was alive with color — purple and red turnip tops mixing exuberantly with green rye, vetch and clover, and beneath it all, rich brown soil. Hill reached down, yanked a long, thick, white daikon radish from the earth and showed his visitors sumptuous coffee-colored clods clinging to hairy rootlets. Those clumps, he explained, hoard carbon — carbon that’s not heating the planet. Continue reading

Saving The Harvest In Europe

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Strawberries at Greens Berry farm in Wexford, Ireland. Photograph: John Greene

With farmers on our mind, recently, and especially the ability of family farms to get harvesting and distribution done we are watching for stories like this:

Farmers across Europe bank on improvised armies of pickers to save harvest

Growers from Ireland to Spain says coronavirus lockdown has stopped migrant workers from arriving

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Workers on a farm at El Prat del Llobregat, near Barcelona, harvest artichokes in March. Photograph: David Ramos/Getty Images

At this time of year John Greene is usually preparing to welcome dozens of Slovakian strawberry pickers for another harvest at his farm in County Wexford in south-east Ireland.

The work is arduous and repetitive and he relies on their experience and stamina to get the fruit picked, packed and sold.

Greene surveyed his fields this week with foreboding. “I look out my window and there’s no one to pick it. None of them are on site at the moment.”

His pickers remain in Slovakia, immobilised by a continent-wide lockdown. It is a similar story for hundreds of thousands of other seasonal agricultural workers who cannot travel just at a time when Europe needs them for harvests. Continue reading

Our Ferias, April 2020 Onward

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Feria2020dSince the 1990s, when we moved to the town of Escazú in Costa Rica’s Central Valley, every Saturday morning begins at the farmer’s market, locally known as a feria. A rustic, informal gathering when we started shopping there, with little variety to select from, we bought basics like carrots and potatoes back then. We moved to India in 2010 and when we returned to Costa Rica in 2018 and resumed this Saturday ritual, we discovered what is now a remarkably wide selection of fruits and vegetables, dairy products and freshly roasted coffees, meats and fish, as well as handicrafts. Artichokes were our happiest surprise.

Feria2020eAsparagus is a close second. There is a vermiculturist who sells compost, and she also offers the service of bringing worms to your garden to set up a home garden composting system. There are families who we have known these two decades whose kids have taken over the farm, and the market responsibilities.

The farmer’s market in Ithaca, NY–our family’s benchmark when we arrived in Costa Rica, was more festive than the experience in Escazú’s feria. Later, we came to enjoy the elegance of our neighborhood marché in Paris. Likewise, while living on the island of Kalamota, our Saturday ritual was a ferry ride to Dubrovnik harbor where we would shop for the week at the excellent poljoprivredno tržište, a farmer’s market that in addition to fresh fruits and vegetables introduced us to ajvar (roasted sweet pepper salsa), walnut liqueur, and other Croatian delicacies. My memory of the farmer’s market in India where we shopped for nearly seven years is for some reason dominated by bananas.

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Now in Escazú’s feria we regularly find oyster mushrooms, two varieties of eggplant, three varieties of kale, and four varieties of avocado, not to mention this fruit that is unlike any I have seen or tasted anywhere else that we have lived or traveled. The farmer who offered it to me earlier this month explained how to open and eat it. He wanted to gift me some to take home to try, and buy the following week if I liked it.  Instead, I told him I liked the sample, bought a few and suggested I would find him next week if the ones I bought did not taste as good. He laughed and we settled for that.  For all their differences, Escazú’s feria does what the Ithaca, Paris, Dubrovnik and Kochi farmer’s markets do besides providing fresh produce: allow townspeople to know the farmer’s who grow their food.

That has been on my mind since nine days ago, when we decided that we would not shop in this crowded space, even if it remains open. I realized that it is likely to close the way many places are being forced to close currently, in part because it is a confined space and also because it is a cash economy, neither of which will help flatten the curve the way this country is working so hard (and so far, relatively effectively) to do.

But on my mind is not how I will miss the produce and the experience so much as wondering what I personally might do to ensure that the families whose farms depend on the feria make it through the next months. It occurs to me that the Community Supported Agriculture model gives farmers in the USA an alternative to these markets. One my sister is a member of in Atlanta is an example of a successful CSA. I have started imagining a social enterprise, limited in time and scope for this exact purpose: a 6-month single-purpose business that will receive the produce of these farmers, clean it and distribute it to homes that have always shopped at these ferias, and especially those who can afford to pay for the service, in the interest of supporting the family farms who serve the ferias of the Central Valley. My recent business interests, which I have enjoyed sharing about in these pages are anyway going to be on hold. April 1 to September 30, 2020 maybe I will be on a new mission.

Functioning Ecosystems Are Key To Our Future

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“How do we feed the nine billion?” Fiennes said. “Through functioning ecosystems.” Photograph by Siân Davey for The New Yorker

The title of this post, paraphrasing the subject of the profile below, states the obvious. Sometimes, that must be. Thank you, Sam Knight:

CAN FARMING MAKE SPACE FOR NATURE?

After Brexit, the obsessions of Jake Fiennes could change how Britain uses its land.

One day last summer, Jake Fiennes was lost in a cloud of butterflies. He was on a woodland path near Holkham Beach, on the north coast of Norfolk. Every decade or so, ten million painted-lady butterflies, which are orange, black, and white, migrate to Britain from tropical Africa. The hot summer meant that it was a bumper year for native species, too, and the painted ladies mingled with red admirals, peacocks, and common blues, feeding on bushes set back a few yards from the path. “Just sat in a haze of flittering, fluttering butterflies,” Fiennes told me later. “I was in awe. These flowers were just exploding.” Continue reading

Farms & Non-Farms For Our Future

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Critics note that flawed strategies have encouraged tree farms, such as this oil palm plantation in Costa Rica. SHUTTERSTOCK

Richard Conniff explains why tree farms, like the one pictured above, are not part of the solution to climate change, whereas abandoned ancient farms like the one picture below may be part of the solution:

Could Abandoned Agricultural Lands Help Save the Planet?

Agriculture’s global footprint is decreasing — more land globally is now being abandoned by farming than converted to it. This, some researchers contend, presents an opportunity for ecological restoration that could help fight climate change and stem the loss of biodiversity.

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The town of Castro Laboreiro, Portugal, where former grazing lands have reverted to nature. ANTONIO LOMBA/FLICKR

People have lived in Castro Laboreiro, where northern Portugal borders Spain, long enough to have built megaliths in the mountainous countryside and a pre-Romanesque church, from 1,100 years ago, in the village itself. But the old rural population has dwindled away, leaving behind mostly elders yearning for their vanishing culture. Continue reading

A Home For Potato Knowhow

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 A selection of the thousands of native potato varieties that grow in Peru. Photograph: The International Potato Centre

Thanks to Dan Collyns (last seen in our pages in 2013), writing in the Guardian, for this:

How Peru’s potato museum could stave off world food crisis

Agri-park high in the Andes preserves the expertise to breed strains fit for a changing climate

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A worker picking potatoes high in the Andes. Photograph: The International Potato Centre

With a climate changing faster than most crops can adapt and food security under threat around the world, scientists have found hope in a living museum dedicated to a staple eaten by millions daily: the humble potato.

High in the Peruvian Andes, agronomists are looking to the ancestral knowledge of farmers to identify genetic strains which could help the tubers survive increasingly frequent and intense droughts, floods and frosts.

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 A selection of biofortified potatoes, grown to be higher in zinc and iron. Photograph: David Dudenhoeffer/The International Potato Centre

The Potato Park in Cusco is a 90 sq km (35 sq mile) expanse ranging from 3,400 to 4,900 metres (16,000 feet) above sea level. It has “maintained one of the highest diversities of native potatoes in the world, in a constant process of evolution,” says Alejandro Argumedo, the founder of Asociación Andes, an NGO which supports the park. Continue reading

Moderating Methane

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Cristina Byvik

During June and July last year we were in residence on a dairy farm, and the prospective benefit of cows having seaweed added to their diet came to my attention. Today another briefing on this topic, from Rowan Walrath writing in Mother Jones, notifies me that this idea is making progress:

One day in January 2014, police rushed to a farm in Rasdorf, Germany, after flames burst from a barn. They soon discovered that static electricity had caused entrapped methane from the flatulence and manure of 90 dairy cows to explode.

Headline writers had a field day. But the incident pointed to a serious problem: Ruminant livestock, mostly cattle, account for 30 percent of all global methane emissions, pumping out 3 gigatons of the gas every year in their burps, farts, and manure. Methane is an especially potent greenhouse gas: During its 12-year lifespan after being released, it traps 84 times as much heat as carbon dioxide, and its effect on global warming over a century is 34 times that of CO2. According to the United Nations, reducing methane emissions from cows could be one of the quickest ways to slow climate change. Continue reading

Climate, Wine & Adaptation

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Don Valley, Australia John Laurie for The New York Times

Eric Asimov, wine critic, is also a pretty good explainer of the practical implications of climate change:

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Catena Zapata, Argentina Horacio Paone for The New York Times

Wine, which is among the most sensitive and nuanced of agricultural products, demonstrates how climate change is transforming traditions and practices that may be centuries old.

Around the wine-growing world, smart producers have contemplated and experimented with adaptations, not only to hotter summers, but also to warmer winters, droughts and the sort of unexpected, sometimes violent events that stem from climate change: freak hailstorms, spring frosts, flooding and forest fires, just to name a few.

Farmers have been on the front line, and grape growers especially have been noting profound changes in weather patterns since the 1990s. In the short term, some of these changes have actually benefited certain regions.

Places, like England, that were historically unsuited for producing fine wine have been given the opportunity to join the global wine world, transforming local economies in the process. Continue reading

Elderberries, Up & Coming From The Past

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Heiko Wolfraum/dpa/AP

Thanks to Marisa Endicott at Mother Jones for this:

This Ancient Fruit Holds Secrets for How to Farm in Climate Change

Respect your elder-berries.

Cloverleaf Farm, a small produce operation in Davis, California, managed to do okay during the extreme drought that lasted from 2012 to 2016. But in the first wet year after the long dry period, the farm lost its entire apricot crop to disease—$40,000 to $50,000 down the drain.

Researchers predict that as climate change worsens, there will be more frequent shifts between extreme dry spells and floods. As Cloverleaf learned the hard way, the phenomenon is already taking a toll on growers in the country’s largest food producing state. During the drought, California’s agricultural and related industries lost $2.7 billion in one year alone. Big cash crops like almonds and grapes are at particular risk in the future, unnerving farmers and vintners already taking hits from erratic and extreme weather. Continue reading

Cleaning Up Productivity

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Harvard scientists and landscapers are testing a new fertilizer that could reduce pollution in water supplies. Unsplash

Thanks to Caitlin McDermott-Murphy for this story about cleaning up our growing systems:

Ending ‘dead zones’

How a biofriendly fertilizer could offer a greener way to grow plants

Every year, a “dead zone” the size of Massachusetts sprawls across the Gulf of Mexico. The Mississippi River, which travels through the nation’s farm belt, sweeps excess fertilizer and dumps the chemicals into the Gulf, where they feed rampant algae, deplete oxygen, and kill marine life.

Across the U.S., smaller versions of similar dead zones infect lakes, ponds, and rivers. In years with higher rainfall — like 2018 — Massachusetts’ Charles River collects enough pollutants from surrounding city streets, parking lots, and landscaped campuses to cause the water quality to drop. Unchecked algae growth, often the result of excess fertilizer, can damage marine, human, and even pet health: This year, several dogs died after swimming in water choked with toxic blue-green algae. Continue reading

Impossible This & That

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Pat Brown, Impossible’s founder, argues that we can’t fight climate change unless we get rid of cows. The Voorhes for The New Yorker

What can you not live without? Better yet, what might we live without that would have a positive impact on climate change? The answer to that is Pat Brown’s mission. And his story is better told in the story below than any other place where I have read about impossible this, and impossible that. I am heartened to read of Impossible’s progress as much as I am embarrassed by my own failure to cut meat consumption more than I have. My reduction has been dramatic, but not radical. Compared to my most meat-intensive eating days I have reduced animal protein intake by at least 70%; until I get to 100%, I will remain embarrassed. Thanks to Tad Friend for cheering me on with this longform view into Impossible this and that:

Can a Burger Help Solve Climate Change?

Eating meat creates huge environmental costs. Impossible Foods thinks it has a solution.

Cows are easy to love. Their eyes are a liquid brown, their noses inquisitive, their udders homely; small children thrill to their moo.

Most people like them even better dead. Americans eat three hamburgers a week, so serving beef at your cookout is as patriotic as buying a gun. When progressive Democrats proposed a Green New Deal, earlier this year, leading Republicans labelled it a plot to “take away your hamburgers.” The former Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka characterized this plunder as “what Stalin dreamt about,” and Trump himself accused the Green New Deal of proposing to “permanently eliminate” cows. In fact, of course, its authors were merely advocating a sensible reduction in meat eating. Who would want to take away your hamburgers and eliminate cows?

Well, Pat Brown does, and pronto. A sixty-five-year-old emeritus professor of biochemistry at Stanford University, Brown is the founder and C.E.O. of Impossible Foods. By developing plant-based beef, chicken, pork, lamb, dairy, and fish, he intends to wipe out all animal agriculture and deep-sea fishing by 2035. His first product, the Impossible Burger, made chiefly of soy and potato proteins and coconut and sunflower oils, is now in seventeen thousand restaurants. When we met, he arrived not in Silicon Valley’s obligatory silver Tesla but in an orange Chevy Bolt that resembled a crouching troll. He emerged wearing a T-shirt depicting a cow with a red slash through it, and immediately declared, “The use of animals in food production is by far the most destructive technology on earth. We see our mission as the last chance to save the planet from environmental catastrophe.” Continue reading